Disclaimer: I don't own any of the following characters, just using their stories to tell my own. A bit cheap, yes, but hey, it's the age of the internet!
The forest did not let up. It was immense, and filled with things that forests—in Yue's eyes—shouldn't have. She stopped a few times, too entranced by the flora to keep up with the others, so that often Haruna had to come back and fetch her. Plants weren't supposed to be that shade of purple or orange—they were too artificial looking, synthetic. But the way they mixed with the blues and greens of the natural forest, the plants that might've looked so normal if they had not great tufts of stringy, purple leaves sprouting from the stems—it was beautiful, and too interesting to pass up. She found herself collecting some, wondering what the substance was that made them this color. Was it a pigment of some sort, or was it like chlorophyll and did it have some purpose other than just color?
"Nodoka, look at this—" she pressed, speeding up to where the shy girl was walking. "These needles are just like coniferous trees from our world, but look at the color and feel them—it's like plastic, isn't it?"
Nodoka smiled at her and nodded, but seemed too distracted to pay much attention. She kept glancing forwards, and then around, as if searching for someone or something.
In reality, she wasn't. She just didn't want to get eaten by anything. From the very moment they'd arrived in this place, she'd felt something…strange about it. Something not right. She couldn't shake it, even now, even as everyone else in the group was getting to know each other—in some form or another.
Asuna marched ahead of their little group with Negi, who seemed anxious. She decided not to comment—accounting it for his natural tendency to worry unnecessarily about things—and was taking an interest in everyone else.
"Those two seem to be getting along pretty well," she said to Negi.
The boy glanced at her. "Which two?"
"The blonde kid—Naruto, I think—and the kekkaishi guy whose name I don't remember—"
"Yoshimori, I think,"
"Yeah. They seem to be hitting it off."
Negi glanced at the two. They did, in fact—they were deep in conversation about something that had both of them excited and animated. They didn't seem to mind much about the situation. It was more than just they, though—Kiri and Elle were talking happily to Kitara and Aang as they walked side-by-side, Ranma seemed to be having a boasting match with the little blind girl, Toph, and behind them, Sokka was talking casually with Akane, Konoka and Setsuna.
Only the three adults were apart. Saito was walking ahead of everyone, ignoring the lot of them, despite Tifa's attempts at conversing. Raiden didn't seem much better. Eventually, she'd drifted back and had begun to talk with Tokine, who she seemed to be getting along with quite well.
"This whole thing is too weird, though," Asuna muttered, breaking him off from his thoughts.
"Yes, I suppose it is," Negi said, sighing.
"I dunno if I liked that god guy."
"I'm not sure we were supposed to. I think he might've been prepared for that, though," Negi said. "He can't expect us to be happy with this arrangement, even if it might be advantageous for us in the long run." He then shook his head, frowning. "But I don't understand."
"Who are our enemies? Whom exactly would we be fighting against?"
"Dunno," said Asuna, shrugging. "We hadn't even gotten to the magical world yet, so I suppose you're right—we don't really have any big-time enemies, not since Chao."
"It's annoying me," said Negi. "If we knew who it was, it'd be easier to plan against him."
"Don't worry so much about it," Asuna said, waving her hand at him.
Yue had come up beside them, having succeeded in her attempts to get Nodoka interested in the flora. The other girl was near the back now, staring wildly at a few flowers that seemed to be moving—"like triffids"—she kept muttering, her eyes lost in her imagination.
"That's flawed logic," Yue said.
Asuna blinked. "What?"
"We have every reason to be worried about it. We never know when they might attack, and if they get the drop on us, then we're dead. If we don't know who they are…"
"What if they're in the same position?"
Yue thought about that. "I suppose most "villains" in the classical sense of the word would have more enemies than we would, as bad deeds breed enemies more than good ones.
"But I reject the use of that term anyways. The world isn't like a fantasy novel or anything like that. Maybe the people who are our mortal enemies aren't actually bad people—in a sense."
"What?" Asuna mumbled, already confused.
Yue sighed. "What I'm saying is, people almost never think themselves as 'evil'—everyone believes they are good. It is other people who attribute evil to them. Thus, were I to be addressed by a god—whose title is 'The Trader of Sin', and whose purpose in a world is to be, well, evil—to be the balance to good—and that the purpose you were brought to a world was to be the counterpart of a group of 'good guys', as in us, then I would not be very happy. I can't think that our enemies will be as agreeable as this Benas person seems to think they would be."
"So you think they might rebel?" Negi asked, while Asuna was still working out what she'd said.
"They might," said Yue. "I don't know who they are, and I'm speaking in a very general sense—these people are probably very different from what I think they might be, because when I think of bad guys, I think of power-hungry despots or evil overlords, and certainly there can't be so many of those in real life. But it seems to me that those who have power—which our enemies certainly will, or it would be no contest—would seek to keep that power and try not to be undermined by others. Hence, mistrust is bred between both their companions and the one governing them."
"How did we get on this topic, anyways?" Asuna mumbled. "I don't even know what we're talking about anymore. I thought we were just saying that it'd be dangerous if they caught us by surprise."
"We were," said Yue. "And it would be. But what I was saying, Asuna-san, was that there is a chance that they might not even give much thought to us. They might not want to 'play the game' as it were. They might not want to act the part of the 'villain', and we might not even meet them at all."
Asuna nodded. "That'd be good."
"That'd be boring," Toph said, up ahead. They looked over at her. She'd finished her discussion with Ranma, and was walking beside Aang and Kitara.
"Are you the least bit curious about who we might be fighting?" Toph didn't even turn back to look at them. It was hard to know who she was talking to.
"Not really," Asuna said. "I don't really like fighting."
"And you do?"
"Yeah!" Toph said, smirking.
"Yeah, well—" Asuna began, hotly, but Yue stopped her with a few shakes of her head. Realizing her temper might be overcoming her, Asuna began to mutter and eventually drifted off.
"What the heck is that?" a bellow came from behind them.
Heads turned to Sokka, who was staring in bewilderment at Chisame, who had withdrawn her cell phone to see if it worked.
"A cell phone," Chisame said. "Why'd you yell?"
Sokka ignored that. He pressed forwards. "What is it? It's some sort of machine, right?"
"For what?" His eyes were hungry, gleaming like a child's.
Chisame twitched, quite uncomfortable with his sudden closeness. She inched away, muttering something about communication, and sped up, Sokka quickly following with peppered questions about how it worked.
Negi grinned. "Looks like Chisame-san made a new friend."
The girls snickered, while Chisame sent the boy a murderous glare before speeding up out of view.
It was impossible to tell what time it was in the thick forest—but it seemed to be getting darker, and everyone felt more tired by the moment. Some began to complain of hunger, others of sore feet. The twittering of birds was gradually fading, replaced by the chirping crickets and other, stranger insect sounds that they had not heard before.
"Shouldn't we stop soon?" Tokine asked nobody in particular.
"Seconded," Yoshimori said, holding up a hand. "I'm beat. Let's find somewhere to camp."
It didn't take long. There was a scant parting up ahead, barely clear of surrounding brush, with only a tiny break in the tree line to show that the night was as dark as the forest around them. There seemed to be no moon out that night—if there was one at all.
"Oi!" Naruto called out front. "Old man! Raiden! You guys gonna keep going all night?"
He couldn't actually see either of the two men—Saito was somewhere far ahead, and presumably, Raiden was with him. But soon enough, Raiden returned—moving without hardly a sound—and propped himself against a tree, watching them all. Saito returned behind him. The man was smoking again, and didn't seem pleased that they had stopped. Then again, he had not once looked pleased since they had arrived.
For good reason, to be sure.
"Anyone know how to build a fire?"
"We got a mage," Asuna said, etched with pride. "We don't need one."
"Seriously?" Yoshimori said, his eyes perking up.
"…The hell's a mage?" Naruto said, crossing his arms.
"I'll explain later," Negi said. "Perhaps a fire would be good first—do we have any food?"
There was a general shaking of heads. Nobody seemed ready to go and find some, either—indeed, they had no idea what they could eat, not being sure what was poison and what might even be the least bit nourishing. Combined with that, they had no water, either and they had not passed a stream all day. A few looked worried as they all gathered sticks to light a fire. There was some confusion on the best way to do it—Sokka, self-proclaimed expert at camping, claimed that a conical-shaped wood pile burnt easier, but Tokine said that it was better to use a log-cabin style, as it burnt more thoroughly and for longer.
Eventually they decided on both, thanks to a kind word put in by Tifa.
Minutes later, everyone had curled around the flames, and had fallen into a curious silence, one of the few since they had arrived. They didn't know each other still, but the day had warmed them to each other's presences. They could trust these people—after a fashion, at least.
And then the talk started, splitting them into groups. Suddenly, everyone had to know everyone else's life stories. Where they were from. What it was like. Their parents, family, friends, food, cities, countries, clothes and women, histories, books, television, manga, games, no matter how trivial, they spoke of it.
It felt strange to speak of their world in a way that they hadn't ever before. How do you explain to someone what you have known all your life, something that you hadn't really ever thought about in that way? How do you describe your world in aesthetic terms, make it come alive for somebody?
More strange were the similarities.
"It appears that with the exception of Naruto-kun, Kiri-kun and Elle-san, Aang-san and his group, and Tifa-san, there is a 'Tokyo' in each of our worlds…" Yue said, frowning to herself. "Though, we haven't confirmed with Raiden-san yet."
Raiden looked at them, saying nothing, from where he lay against a tree far from the fire. He didn't answer the implied question, and merely closed his eyes.
"It's really strange," Negi said, nodding. "Some of our worlds seem so alike."
"We all, basically, come from Japan," Yoshimori said, frowning. "Or at least it seems that way…"
"Naruto-kun," Tokine said, looking at the boy who was staring deeply into the flames, for once silent. "You're a ninja, correct?"
Naruto nodded. "Yeah. Why?"
"We have ninja in our world—or we did, at least, a few hundred years ago."
"We have a friend who's a ninja," Konoka said, cheerily. "I wonder why she didn't come?"
"It's obvious, isn't it?" Chisame said, with a shrug. "Only the brat's partners are here. Nobody else was. Not even that ermine."
"What do you mean by partners, Chisame-san?" Elle asked, sitting next to her, Kiri ever at her side.
"It's a bit difficult to explain," Chisame mumbled.
"No it isn't," Negi said, smiling. "I'll do it. A partner is—"
The night continued like that. Naruto's question of mages was answered, as were his curiosities about Negi's ninja-friend and Tifa's ninja-friend, both of whom, he was loathe to discover, possessed abilities similar to his own, which meant he'd get no surprised looks out of anyone, really. It kind of took the mystery of his way of life away.
While he was thinking that, however, many were continuing to wonder why Naruto had been chosen at all. He had (grudgingly) confessed that he was still the lowest class of ninja—genin—and was only just beginning his real training. Other than that, he didn't seem like a ninja at all—loud and brash and foul-mouthed at points as well, he'd made quite an impression on their first day's walk with his loud conversation with Yoshimori. Nobody understood his place in all of this—without even a companion beside him.
It was no small wonder that they thought this—everyone who was under the age of twenty had somebody with them from their world. Only Tifa, Saito and Raiden remained alone from theirs, aside from Naruto—who was only barely thirteen. They gave the same amount of wondering to his sole presence as they did to the strange relationship that Negi and his 'students' seemed to possess, or Kiri and Elle's 'curse'. But they learned enough about the group to sate their curiosities for the time being.
Elle was a sister of some order or another (Kiri was vague on the subject, and Elle kept quiet), Kiri a lowly artist who possessed a skill with making things very quickly, no matter what they were, and apparently another power which allowed him to suppress Elle's 'curse', which had been with her since birth. The curse caused fatal tremors to appear eventually, and would make Elle disappear if she did not constantly cling to Kiri's hand or be in some contact with his flesh. They had been on their way to Elle's main headquarters to research the curse, when they had been summoned.
Negi was a mage—a sorcerer or wizard who had been raised in Wales and then had been shipped off to Japan, where he had met Asuna and everyone else. He taught their class English, despite his young age (the assignment he'd been given as his graduation duty was apparently unquestionable). He was in constant search of his father, and they had been just about to head to the main capital of magic—the magica munda, in a plane parallel to theirs, before the good god had summoned them.
Ranma and Akane lived in a dojo together, with their strange parents and an assortment of annoying fiancées who "badgered us all the time", and apparently Ranma was no stranger to curses either—he would've demonstrated, but he possessed no water to demonstrate. He said he could change into a woman whenever cold water touched him, and he would change back when hot water touched him. Akane confirmed it, and said it brought no end to their troubles and by the time they had finished explaining, they were bickering about something or another that made everyone uncomfortable to watch.
Aang was the Avatar—said to be the protector of balance in his world, a sort of Buddha who could manipulate all four of the world's elements—despite Naruto's insistence that there were five elements, lightning being one of them as well—through a process called bending. Kitara and Sokka had been members of the dwindling Water Tribe who had found Aang, frozen in a block of ice, and had freed him. They had met Toph later, who had become Aang's master of earthbending. Their goal was to defeat the Firelord, a tyrant who had broken the balance of the four nations and sought to control everything, fighting a war that had lasted a hundred years. They had been doing that when they had been summoned away.
Yoshimori and Tokine were protectors of a little patch of land in the middle of a city, on which a school had been built, a place that their family had been protecting for generations. Theirs was a world filled with demons and beasts of the dark, where gods lived still among humans in little worlds of their own, only venturing out when they needed aid, or something had disturbed their worlds. Though they were from rival families, they got along well enough, apparently, and both were apparently very good at what they did—destroying demons.
Tifa came from a world that had once been in great danger of its own destruction—a world where the planet's resources had been plundered by a corporation intent on mass-marketing the energy it brought out, a world that she had already saved—with her many friends—once before; not from the corporation, no, but from a monster from the sky and a man poisoned by its corruption. The man, and the monster, had both been destroyed. Since, she had been working at her bar, taking care of children orphaned by the world's near collapse. She had not seen many of her friends since. Her day had been no different the day she had been summoned.
Neither Saito nor Raiden joined in. They remained silent, and as such, their stories were not heard. By that point, nobody really cared much. They were tired, and sick of the two's brooding silence, and still suspicious of where Saito was leading them.
But they all slept. They kept no watch, as foolishly as that was, but nothing harmed them during the night.
"You know where the hell we're going?" Naruto said. His voice was sharp and annoyed as he plunged through the forest, trying to keep pace with Saito's long strides.
The man didn't answer.
Naruto looked behind. Everyone was following. But they, like him, were beginning to wonder where they were being taken. It had been three days, and they had seen nothing. No hint of a city or town, not a single column of smoke or any visible sign of frequent human habitation—a road or a cabin or anything to show that they were not alone.
"Oi, you listening?" He'd tried talking to Saito before, but it never worked. Nothing would make the man speak, or even look, in Naruto's direction. It annoyed him, made him feel useless, abandoned. It was even worse than the cold eyes they gave him back in Konoha, because at least those had let him know he existed. Saito's eyes didn't.
"Where are we?" he repeated.
Saito didn't say anything.
Growling, Naruto dropped back to Yoshimori's side. The two of them got along really well by this time—Naruto didn't know why, but he had a kindred spirit in the older boy, and both of them liked a lot of the same things—sweet things like cakes (which Yoshimori was a master of), ramen (which Naruto was a master of), fighting, training, and the list went on from their. They could talk for hours about the things they didn't have in common as well. Things that were new and fresh were even better than things they could agree on.
"Just give it up," Yoshimori said, sighing. "Damn, that's annoying. He really doesn't like talking to people, does he?"
"And you say he's famous?" Naruto muttered.
"Apparently," said Yoshimori. "In history and stuff—I never really pay attention much anyways, but he's in a lot of manga too. Shinsengumi stuff. Way different from this guy, though."
"He's an asshole," Naruto snapped.
Yoshimori blinked at him. He didn't ask why, but for some reason, Naruto had taken the slight as personal. "Yeah, probably," Yoshimori said, with a shrug.
They walked along for a bit, listening to the forest chatter around them, and their companions chatter behind them. Talk was never short—everyone had something to say, something new to share to each other as they thought of it. It was almost like a game—think of as many things as you can and tell the first person you see about it.
Naruto sighed. "I guess I'll try the other guy."
"Yeah, why not? He might be better."
Yoshimori watched as Naruto sped up and trailed off to where Raiden walked, moving as silently and swiftly as a shadow at night. The man was more like a ninja than Naruto in every fashion, it seemed.
While Naruto did that, Yoshimori turned back to the others. It was such a strange situation, being with so many new people, and they had practically forgotten the reason they had been brought here. They were here to fight, weren't they? But where was the danger?
It was almost like a vacation, only instead of family, there were weirdoes. Which even then, wasn't so different.
To be sure, he liked a few of them, and he was glad Tokine was there as well, but he still didn't quite understand the situation. More to the point, he had no idea who he and Tokine were going to be facing.
Do we have any enemies, he wondered not a few times. He'd even asked Tokine once about it, earlier that day. They had just set off, after breaking camp.
"Ayakashi," she said, simply.
"Yeah, but which ones?" he asked.
She gave a simple shrug, and hadn't said much more. Of course she didn't know any more than he did, but shouldn't she at least be open to speculation? She's probably worried. She's still as bewildered as I am, I guess it'll take us a while to get used to the fact that we won't have any place to settle down and protect like we had back in Karasumori. She was probably even more wary of their companions than she was of the supposed threat of their enemies, too. She was like that. Even Sen had told him he was too trusting of people, constantly.
But he could see nothing wrong with some of them. Naruto, for one, was a great guy. Easy to get along with, fun to talk to, and full of rousing, interesting stories—which might have some grain of truth in them—of his home world, a place filled with people as shadowy and dark as the Urakai.
There was something odd about him, though, and Yoshimori got a weird feeling whenever the boy was around. A feeling of being watched, assessed, like a predator would prey, but it was never Naruto who seemed to give off this feeling. The boy couldn't have looked intimidating if he'd wanted to. It was a strange presence, but Yoshimori paid it no mind after awhile. Negi and his mage partners were not so bad, either, and they were pretty cute girls to boot.
Of the adults, however, Yoshimori only trusted Tifa. As famous as Saito Hajime was, the guy gave off bad vibes, and Raiden seemed much the same. He couldn't believe that Naruto was actually trying to talk to them. He did however, admire the boy's persistence. Naruto was nothing, if that, and he'd already made friends with most of their group.
Tokine was suddenly beside him. "Hey," he said, grinning at her.
She smiled a little back, and said, "I've been thinking."
"This situation. I feel that we don't belong here."
Yoshimori nodded, a little uncertain. "I suppose. But what are we supposed to do about it?"
"You recall the battle against the Kurokabuto?"
Yoshimori was not liable to forget it. A giant beast created by dark sorcery—the Kurokabuto—had once been sent to Karasumori by a group of two brothers who sought to hatch it. Yoshimori had defeated it, with a lot of help from Karasumori itself, while Tokine had found and fought those responsible for its creation.
"Yeah, what about it?"
"I used a technique similar to what my grandmother used to reach you, when you went to the Kokuburo," she said. "A technique of warping space."
Yoshimori's heart quickened when he heard it. He was not so dim as to not realize what she was saying. "Do you think…?"
"I don't know," she confessed in a low voice. "It'll take a little time, but I think I might be able to create something similar. It might be able to get us home."
"And the others?"
Tokine didn't respond at first. "I don't know," she said, very softly. "I wouldn't say that I don't trust them, but I certainly don't like the reasons we were brought here…and I don't know if I would be willing to sacrifice myself for people I do not know."
Tokine had always been harsh, and very cool. She rarely let that side of herself be shown, but Yoshimori had seen how cold she could be at points. She'd been cold to him a number of times, though thankfully not as cold as she had been to some of her foes.
"I think they're alright," he said. "They don't seem to be bad guys, we just need a little time to get to know them. Plus, we don't know if that technique will work. Might be that we can only escape this place by doing what that crazy god guys says."
"About that—" she began, but was cut off as Tifa sidled back, walking alongside her.
"Is this a private conversation?" she asked, her smile teasing and pleasant. Yoshimori blushed, as most boys his age would when speaking to a pretty girl like her, and shook his head before Tokine could react. The girl shot him an annoyed look that lasted only a second, before smiling at Tifa.
"No, just wondering about home."
Tifa nodded. "I wonder how long we'll be here," she said.
"Until we defeat our enemies, I presume," Tokine said, politely, but in that way that Yoshimori knew she didn't want to say much more.
"A strange condition," Tifa noted, with a nod. "I had never truly believed in gods until now, but I am glad that I did not, if they are all like this. I don't like much having to fight for something that seems so petty."
"Agreed," said Tokine, with a little smile.
"Yeah," said Yoshimori, trying not to look at Tifa's breasts, and failing.
"This is pretty convenient, wouldn't you say?" Sokka said, grinning at Aang as they walked, brushing branches out of their way and listening to the rustling, odd-colored leaves crunch beneath their feet.
"I guess," Aang said, with a little shrug. "It's pretty weird, though. I still can't believe it's happening."
"It sounds too much like a stupid storybook," Toph said, kicking a rock from her unswerving path. "We're the champions of light and stuff, gone off to fight the evil lords. It's stupid."
"Yeah," Kitara said. "But what else can we do?"
"Nothin'," said Sokka, grinning. "We get these guys to help us blow away the Firelord, we do a bit of fighting with their enemies, we all go home and the land's at peace. Bada-bing, bada-boom."
"Something tells me it won't be that easy, brother of mine," Kitara said, shaking her head.
"Nor I," Aang said, quietly, watching everyone else plod through the forest, wondering who they truly were and why they had been chosen.
Somewhere beside them, Naruto was trying to get Raiden to talk, too. He was succeeding, as well, or at least in comparison with Saito.
"So he hasn't told you where we're going?" Naruto said, staring into the man's soft face and cold eyes, that had a little sheen to them that most people's didn't.
"No," Raiden said, shortly.
Naruto glanced at the sword sheathed across his back. It was a finely wrought katana, which Naruto hadn't noticed before.
"Cool sword," he said.
The man didn't answer.
"Do you call it a katana too?"
"Does it have a name?"
"It is a tool," Raiden said.
Naruto narrowed his eyes. "Are you a tool?"
The man looked at him, very briefly. "What if I am?"
"Then I don't much want to talk with you," Naruto said, stiffly. "Tools aren't much fun to talk to." I would know, he thought, thinking of another black-haired, pale-skinned tool he knew. He wondered if that was whom he was supposed to fight. If it wasn't, there was only one other group.
But that was stupid. No way the god would make him fight them.
"You are a ninja," the man finally said.
Naruto blinked up at him. "Shinobi," Naruto corrected. "Ninja's a more informal term, at least in my world."
"Shinobi, then," Raiden said. "You don't seem much like one."
"You talk. Unendingly."
Naruto wasn't sure if that was an insult. He didn't take it as one. "So?"
"You don't listen."
"That's cause you don't say much. It's hard to listen to somebody that doesn't say anything."
Raiden didn't answer that.
Behind them, Yue was fast at work.
"I want to know everyone's abilities," she was saying to Negi, who nodded.
"That's a good idea," Setsuna said, calmly, from her place beside Konoka. "It would be better to assess our battle strength before we actually have to fight."
"Yes," Yue said. "I also have another thing we need to discuss, but that can be done when we're all together, later when we make camp."
"Who do you think's the strongest, Setsuna?" Haruna asked, in the back.
Setsuna cave a shrug. "I don't know. I am sure they are all capable. Some more than others."
"That Saito guy is probably pretty good."
"But used to dealing with humans, I'd wager," Yue said. "Not mages. Or anything else that we might have to fight, like demons or something."
"I get a strange feeling about some of them," Setsuna said. "The boy, Naruto, for one. And the other boy—Aang, the Avatar, I believe."
"Strange in what sense?" Yue asked.
"From Naruto I receive a very strange feeling, almost as if I am being watched by a predator—it's a similar feeling I get when dealing with demons. They give off a similar feeling, and I can assess the power level depending on its strength."
"How powerful is this one?" Haruna asked, giving the boy, who was far ahead of them and almost obscured by trees.
"Not so strong," Setsuna said. "It is uncomfortable. He is human, without a doubt, which is why I'm mystified."
"And from Aang-san?" Negi said.
"A peaceful feeling, but very powerful, and very…amalgamate. It's like sensing a thousand people at once. But they're all one, as well."
"He did say that he was a collection of past lives, didn't he?" Yue asked.
They said no more of that, and moved on to other topics, most notably of where they were going. Haruna told Nodoka to pull out her artifact and pry into Saito's mind, just to see if he really did have any idea of where they were going, but Nodoka balked, too terrified of the gaunt swordsman's wrath.
"I can't help but think that this is your fault," Akane muttered. They were in the middle of the group, her and Ranma, and for once walking by each other's side, willingly. Akane liked the feeling of Ranma being near her, or at least she had in the past two days. He smelled of home, and that eased the fear and nervousness she had felt since the trek had began.
"My fault?" Ranma blurted. "Whaddya mean?"
"I don't know," she muttered, angrily. Don't get angry, she thought, and could've slapped herself. This isn't his fault at all. "I just, I wanna go home."
"Don't worry," Ranma said. "We'll get home. Count on it."
"No," he confessed, grinning. "But hey, it'll be at least a little fun, won't it? And we won't have any stupid suitors or fiancées or parents to bother us."
"True enough," she said.
The sun set two hours later and they made camp near a tiny stream they had encountered at the bottom of a rocky hill. The overhang of the cliff gave them a little shelter, and was big enough to house all of them. They built a fire again, and all of them drank lustily from the stream, glad that they wouldn't have to worry much about water that night. But it reminded them of their other need, too.
"People should go out and gather food," Yue said, as she tended the fire.
Naruto, Toph, Sokka and Tifa all volunteered, with Yoshimori as an afterthought. They went off into the darkening forest, and came back when the sun had dipped out of sight, and it was well and truly night.
"That's really handy," Naruto was saying to Yoshimori, as they entered camp. Naruto had his arms full of berries and nuts, and there was even a rabbit—with four ears—tied around his waste. Toph had more berries, a few squirrels that had been pulped by rocks, and Tifa and Yoshimori had strung up some fish that they'd found in a nearby lake.
"I know," Yoshimori had said, grinning proudly.
"What's handy?" Asuna asked, eying the large quantity of fish they had.
"My kekkai," Yoshimori said, at the same time as Naruto said, "His ultra-cool energy boxes—they can trap anything!"
A few people giggled, Tokine most of all. She'd never heard their technique quite described like that, though it was fitting.
As they prepared the fish and rabbit and squirrels to be roasted, Yue said, "That actually brings up and interesting point."
"Oh?" Tifa said, sitting down.
"Yes. Our abilities. Our battle-strength. I think we should accurately assess what each of ours is, and that would help us determine how exactly we are supposed to face our enemies. It'd be better if we had organization, don't you think?"
"That sounds fair to me," Kitara said, nodding. "But how do we do that?"
"Everyone just has to give a short description of their strengths, and weaknesses as well. That way, we'll be able to assign everyone a position in battle."
"Position?" Naruto and Yoshimori parroted.
"Of course," Yue said.
"And you think that you are qualified to judge that, as such, little girl?"
It was the first time Saito had spoken since they had left. All eyes went to him. His face seemed even crueler, leaner in the shadows of the fire, flickering beneath and within his obsidian eyes.
Yue flushed. "I don't know. I don't see anyone else suggesting it, though."
"Perhaps because no one thought it necessary," Saito said.
"Of course it's necessary," Yue protested. "If we're going to work together—"
"And what if, perchance, we do not want to work together, girl?" His eyes were sharp, cold, predatorial. They made Yue shiver and want to curl up and never look at them again.
"I don't know."
"I cannot believe that a god," the man said, turning away, "saw fit to choose children for this important task," his sarcasm seemed as sharp as his blade, and his eyes.
"Oi!" Naruto said, "we ain't children!"
"Yes," Elle said, "that's unfair."
"Oh?" Saito said. "All I see are children. Your enemies must be children as well, or scary monsters under the bed. I'm sure they will be quite the challenge. Perhaps we should recruit a few lamps and some stuffed dolls for our cause as well. They might be able to keep you safe."
"Saito-san," Tifa said, quietly. "They did not ask to be here, any more than you did. You could at least leave them to their plans, which are, as I understand it, the only thing that might help us all return to our homes. Perhaps you could help as well, the battle-hardened warrior that you are."
The gaunt man stared at her, then snorted and looked away, drawing out a cigarette. There was silence for a while.
Yue seemed afraid to speak again, so Elle tried, with Kiri backing her up. "I'm afraid Kiri-san and I don't add much to the cause. We have only just begun learning our martial art, and well, I'm afraid we still don't have much skill in it," she flushed.
"We have my power, though, Flare," Kiri said, clenching a fist. "That helps." The power had had described earlier—the ability to add and multiply people's strengths when they were touching each other. Two people would each have the strength of two people, four people, each would have the strength of four, and it went on.
"Support group, then," Haruna said, with a grin. "Like me and Nodoka. That power might come in handy."
"Eh?" was their only response.
Yue seemed to find courage. "Naruto-kun, you're a ninja, correct?"
"Yeah," said Naruto, proudly.
"Which means you have technique likes Kage Bunshin and such, correct?"
Naruto deflated. He'd forgotten that they knew practically all about his techniques. "Yeah…"
"Do you know shundo? Shukuchi?"
Naruto blanked. "What?"
Saito almost laughed, or so it seemed. "You expect a stupid boy like him to know shukuchi?"
Yue flushed, and didn't answer. Asuna's eyes twitched, and she said, "Do you know that technique? Are you even good with a sword? Stop making everyone feel uncomfortable, okay? Do you have something to prove?"
Saito stared at her. "Did I say I did? I am merely being a voice of reason among children. Don't expect a boy to know a technique like that."
"Our worlds are different," Yue said, quietly. "Maybe he does."
"If that were so, girl, than by mentioning merely the names, do you expect him to know anything? Different worlds might yield different names."
Yue blushed, and said nothing again.
"You know what—" Asuna began, angrily, until Konoka and Setsuna quieted her with a few pats and soft words, saying that it'd be no good to start a fight here, when they were all on the same side.
"That depends on your definition," Saito said. "What side are we all on, anyways?"
"That's enough," Tifa said. Everyone went quiet. Then, she said, "I'm a fist-fighter. I know some magic, as well."
Negi perked up. "You do?"
"I imagined it's quite different from yours," Tifa said, with a little smile. "Mine is mass-produced."
"Martial arts," Ranma said, speaking up. "A lot of martial arts. It's too hard to explain, but I'm a fist-fighter, like Tifa. I grapple, mostly, though."
"Same, though I'm," Akane almost had to force the words to come out. "…a little less experienced."
"Kekkai techniques and stuff," said Yoshimori. "Mostly good against demons, though they can be used against other things, too." He grimaced at the thought.
"Airbending, earthbending and waterbending," Aang said. "I'm only good at airbending, though, and still learning the other two."
"Earthbending," Toph said, shortly. "Damn good at it."
"Waterbending," Katara said. "Good, but always learning. I can heal with it, as well."
"I got a club," said Sokka, lamely. "And a boomerang. It always comes back."
"Right," said Yue. She glanced at Raiden. "And you?"
The man was silent; so long that Yue was about to move on, before he said, "A blade master."
"Okay," Yue said, feeling emboldened. "We have a weird collection in our group, don't we?"
"I'm a swordsman, and I can nullify magic," Asuna said, nodding.
"I wield as blade as well," Setsuna said, softly.
"I can heal!" Konoka chirped.
"I can make magical golems," grinned Haruna.
"I-I can read people's m-minds…" Nodoka said, shyly.
"I doubt I can help at all. My stuff deals with technology," Chisame mumbled.
"I've got a book that keeps me up to date on magical things," Yue said. "And a wand. I'm learning magic." She looked around. "Is that everyone?"
"It seems to be," Tokine said.
"Okay. I'll have to think about all of that, but now we have to consider something else. Our group is pretty large, isn't it? There's a lot that can happen to a big group like us." Yue's eyes were always searching. To those that knew her, it was unusual to see her so interested.
"We make easy targets, to be sure," Setsuna said.
"Which means I think we might have to split up. When we reach the town, at least," she glanced at Saito.
"What?" Naruto said. "Why? Isn't a bigger group a bit better? More people to help."
"Truly," said Yue, with a slight nod. "But it also poses problems. We make a big, and easily identifiable target, wherever we are. In towns or in countryside. We blaze a big trail, as well, as not many of us are foresters and used to keeping quiet among the trees. People will remember us as well, so if our enemies question the townspeople, they'll probably get an answer, more often than not."
"Until we've seen the townspeople," Tokine said, "I think we should hold back on that. Perhaps we should consider this once we have reached the city."
"Right," Yue said. "Of course." The food was ready anyways. "Let's eat, and then rest. There's a lot of ground to cover, I can imagine."
The next day lingered long, too, but by noon, a faint smell drifted past Naruto's nose, and he realized it was smoke.
"OI!" he bellowed, to anyone who cared to listen—by this point, there were a select group, as most had learned to screen Naruto's impetuously loud voice. "Smoke! There's a city over that way!" he pointed, for emphasis.
An hour later, his prediction saw true. They reached the end of a forest, at the top of a sloping valley. Beneath them lay a grand array of towers, stone and sand-colored, shooting out amidst the verdant but rocky valley, surrounded by winding streets lined with small and square buildings, also stone and sand-colored, roofed by red shingles or black tarps or just flat tops. The towers were massive, crooked things, and hung banners—of stars and moons, and a sunburst highest of all. The city had a disjointed, otherworldly feel to it, and from the streets they saw, it seemed more a collection of hovels and shops rather than a true city.
"He called this a great city?" Asuna said, raising an eyebrow.
"I think it's beautiful," Elle whispered, in awe of the twisting towers and the sounds and most of all, the smells that seemed so different from all the cities she had been to in her life. She saw so many people as well, stretching even far beyond the city limits, out into the forest that lay beyond the valley, from the single great road that led into it. On all but one side was the city surrounded by the rocks of the valley.
"I never said it wasn't beautiful," Asuna said, blushing a little.
"Shall we go?" Tifa said, smiling a little.
"Let's find a place to stay first," Yue said.
"Without coin?" Kiri said, raising an eyebrow. "That won't work, we need to get some money first."
"Maybe we can find both at once," Tifa said. "An inn would suit our needs. We just need to find people able to work in one."
"You're a barmaid," Haruna said, smiling. "Perhaps you could inquire, my lady?"
Tifa chuckled. "I suppose I could."
"With those boobs," Chisame muttered, where nobody could hear her, "they won't refuse you."
"How the hell did you know where we were going?" Naruto asked Saito, glaring at him.
The man glanced in his direction. In response he drew something from his pocket and flipped it into Naruto's hands, before starting down the valley's rocky hill.
"Hey…" Naruto said, staring at the object. "That bastard!"
"What is it?" Everyone pressed close.
"It's a goddamn compass!" Naruto roared. "When the hell did you get this?"
"I'm a policeman," Saito said, somewhere below. "I carry what I need."
"That bastard let us go this far and didn't even tell us anything!" Asuna roared. "What the hell is wrong with him?"
Raiden snorted, obviously amused, and started down after Saito. Some fumed, others were giggling and their reactions, while some just sighed.
They reached the outskirts of the city soon enough. There were miles of tents and hovels outside the walls, where the smallfolk lived. They caught their first glimpse of the world's denizens when they reached that point.
They were pale, stick-like creatures—they looked like men in everything except the unearthly thinness they had to them. Their hair was often white, but they saw red and brown as well, and even blue and green. Their eyes were wide and as varied as man's, but seemed huge in comparison to their thin bodies and wispy, rectangular faces.
Some of them, huddled in their little tents, did not notice the strangers in their midst. Others noticed right away, and stared. None of them fled, but the attention they gave the humans was uncomfortable enough.
"You think they speak our language?" Nodoka whispered to Yue.
"I don't know," Yue said, who was realizing that it was a lot easier to treat this as a science-fiction movie rather than reality. She could not even begin to imagine how amazing it was to be meeting people from a different world, people who could have very well been humans, if things had gone differently in the evolutionary structure of the world. But maybe evolution doesn't play a part here, she thought. Maybe that was only a law bound in her world.
No, that was stupid.
They circled around the wide array of tents and wicker huts, feeling the stares but hearing nothing from the beings. Saito ignored everything, and just kept walking, a cigarette in his mouth. Raiden did little in response to the creatures as well.
Naruto and Yoshimori gaped at everything, whispering to each other about the things they saw. Nodoka was not much better with Yue, and Katara with Aang and Sokka.
"Do you think they are surprised that we are here, or by our forms?" Tokine wondered aloud.
"Who can say," Tifa said, with a shrug. "Perhaps we'll find out, soon enough."
At the city gates—which were no more ornate than simple breaks in the high wooden walls— the guards stared too, until Saito tried to move past them. Then they stopped, and said—in perfectly comprehensible Japanese—"Welcome to our fair city, friends."
Saito glanced at the guardsmen. They wore no armor, just silken robes, and they clutched halbards and had single-shooters holstered at their sides. An odd mix, he decided, and simply kept walking.
The others drifted past as well, in awe of the bustling city before them. It was even more crowded within than outside—it seemed no more than a giant bazaar, and everywhere they turned there were awnings sticking off the front of shops, hanging clothes, baskets, food, and other trinkets, from the smallest alley to the main street that led in from the road. The roads were dusty and dirt covered, littered with trash and dung that stank, but didn't seem so bad when it mixed with the other smells of the city—the cooking food, the spices, even perfumes wafting from no particular direction.
"It's like those pictures you see of Arabian countries," Haruna said, looking around. "I mean, except it's nowhere near a desert, and everyone here is pale as sin."
They saw more than just the pale people though; there were shorter, stockier people as round and fat as the others were tall and thin, covered in hair with bulbous noses covered in warts and hairs. They saw beasts hitched to carts that resembled the stick-like people, only they walked on four legs and had bone-thin tails sprouting from their backs, and much thicker forearms, presumably from all the work they did. They were the ones responsible for the excrement in the streets.
For awhile, everyone could do naught but look around. The forest had given them a taste of the otherworldliness of this place, but now that they were surrounded by it, they could not escape. They were in a real world, with real people, and it had never seemed so real until then. The haze they had wandered in the previous days was gone. A few people needed to sit down.
"There's an inn over there. I think Saito went in already," Tifa said, pointing.
"That guy needs to relax a bit," Haruna said.
"Agreed." Nearly everyone echoed, as they stumbled in the direction of the inn, their minds lost in a barrage of thoughts as the new city lived around them, never stopping, not even for the strange foreigners.
Then a week had passed, before most had noticed.
The streets around the inn became familiar, and after a week, like home. Every day everyone went about their new jobs, acquired in record timing—the Gurliks were perfectly accommodating. The days brought new and wondrous things to each of them, and steadily they gathered supplies and money for the upcoming journey. But it felt no less strange that someplace that had at first been so different could become so familiar so quickly.
The Gurliks were no different from the humans of any town in their respective worlds. There were the honest tradesmen, the travelers, the seedy merchants and the pickpockets and thieves; they saw priests (benedicts, they were called) walking the streets, calling for worship of their all-seeing, great god of Light (who looked remarkably different in statue forms from the one he had graced all of them with), and nobles in their litters, dressed in gold and white and wearing all the finery of a king.
Kiri, Elle and Haruna had set up shop outside the inn, drawing portraits and making sculptures to sell, but they really enjoyed simply talking to the people and learning more and more about the world they would be in. They found it hard to talk to people, however—most would simply nod and smile or say a few things to them before running off. Nobody lingered for more than a few minutes.
Asuna, Tokine, Konoka and Setsuna had become delivery girls for the restaurant across the street, and found it difficult as well. The people were very friendly, but not open or trusting to them at all. They seemed unsure, even nervous by the newcomers, but there was nothing beyond that. The Gurliks were not scared or awed by their appearance, or if they were, they never commented on it.
"Evidently humans exist, or have existed, in this world," Yue said, one night at dinner. They had all taken to having it together, in the inn's common room, save for Saito who was rarely ever there, and Tifa who worked at the bar, serving drinks to them and other customers. "Perhaps their initial shock was that there aren't many that come this way."
"Or are dressed as strangely as we are," Katara said, smiling. "I don't think I've ever seen such a wide variety of different outfits."
"Speaking of outfits," Haruna reached across the table and tugged at Katara's blue garment, smoothing it between her fingers. "What is this material? And that style, it's really nice!"
Katara smiled. "Thanks. I've been meaning to ask you about yours as well."
"Ours?" Haruna laughed. "School uniforms, nothing special."
"Yeah," said Yoshimori, cutting in upon hearing the mention of uniforms. "We have things like that too. Different style, of course."
"Ours as well," said Akane. She pulled at her own dress. "Ours looks pretty old-fashioned, though."
"Do all schools in Japan have different styles?" Elle asked, kindly, for she had not been privy to the fashion talks in their many previous conversations.
"Yeah," Yoshimori said. "It sucks."
"We never had uniforms," Naruto said.
"I never wear mine," Ranma said.
"Does anyone else find this conversation pointless and annoying?" Chisame grumbled, though it was so low that not many could hear her.
The money they got built up substantially in the week they were there—there was no paper, only tiny coins shaped like diamonds called tan. It came in six kinds—copper of three sizes, silver, gold and platinum.
The world's days were just as long as the days in their respective worlds—twenty-four hours, marked by the fall of the sun in the west and ended by its rise in the east. It was massive, if the map that Yue had bought could be believed, but not entirely explored. Its technology was a mix—they had firearms, which were its most commonly used weaponry, but they had not yet abandoned swords, shields and polearms as weapons of war. The only transport came from the animals they could train to pull their carts.
Their food was as different as possible from Japanese cuisine, ranging from spicy meat stews cooked in a curry-like sauce, a small grain that resembled cous-cous which was eaten entirely with the strange vegetables that numbered too many to count and name, and most prominently bread with an accompaniment of cheeses and hummus-like spreads made from vegetables and meats. But it was all very good, and by the end of the week, it was like they had eaten nothing else their whole lives.
But they all knew that they couldn't stay for much longer. Though their awe of the place had done well to distract them from it, the sense of impending urgency came to the surface at the start of the second week. Yue was chiefly worried about staying in one place for too long.
"We should probably be leaving," she said to Tifa one day, while she sat at the bar waiting for the others to return for dinner. Unlike everyone else, she had opted not to get a job, and instead start planning out their route across the world. The map she used was littered with red markings, and more often than not she, Nodoka and Chisame were hard at work planning the best, most viable route.
"I don't disagree," Tifa said. She looked at home behind the bar, cleaning a class with a fresh rag. "But are we ready?"
"From what I gather, we have enough money to furnish ourselves for at least until the next town, probably beyond that once we learn to hunt."
"I've been reading about stuff like that," Nodoka said, smiling shyly. "What animals and plants are good to eat, so we won't get sick."
"Very clever," said Tifa. "It's more planning that my friends and I ever did on the journeys we took."
"If possible," Chisame muttered, "we're planning too much. We might get too fixed to this stupid schedule."
"We won't," Yue said, quietly. "But as I said, the longer we stay here, I think, the more likely it is we'll get found."
"Yeah, but, how the hell would they be able to get here before us?" Chisame said. She jabbed a finger at the big red skull they had marked on the map. "They're here," she moved her finger all the way across the page, to the red circle. "We're here. That's probably a little longer than the tip of Europe to Asia. They're not going to get here in a week."
"That's assuming they don't possess some abilities we don't."
"Like what?" Chisame said.
"Teleportation or something," Yue said, shrugging.
"This isn't a video game," Chisame grunted. "I've figured that out. They're probably in the same position as we are."
"We shouldn't rush it," Tifa put in, disrupting the argument. "A little longer won't hurt, Yue. We need to be absolutely sure that we're going to be okay on this."
"Maybe," Yue said. She went back to the map, until everyone trickled in for their dinner.
Yoshimori and Naruto came first, hoarsely asking for cups of water. Their job, selected by Asuna because they had the loudest voices, was attracting people to Kiri, Elle and Haruna's little art stand. Neither were very good at it, but Naruto was persistent enough, and his flamboyant fashion sense was more than interesting to the Gurliks in their whites and greys.
"I can't believe we're in a different world," Naruto said, as he sipped his water and sat at the bar next to Yue, "but we still have drinking ages."
"It's how I was raised," Tifa said, with a little smile. "When you're older, boys."
Naruto and Yoshimori exchanged glances, and then sighs.
It didn't take long for everyone else to file in. Haruna, Kiri and Elle came after they had finished putting away their things beside the inn. Saito appeared out of nowhere, from apparently nowhere—looking as immaculate as ever. Negi, Ranma and Akane returned from the post office, delivering letters, and moments after them Asuna, Tokine, Setsuna and Konoka after them, having finished their last order at the restaurant. Sokka, Aang, Toph and Katara came as well, looking dusty and tired, as they had been working in the fields planting and helping with the farmers, of which there were many in a small area of the city called, uninterestingly, the Farmlands. Raiden came as mysteriously as Saito, though everyone knew he had come from the city walls, where he had been stationed as a guard.
Dinner was not long in coming, and when Tifa had set the plates down in front of everyone, and sat down herself, Yue cleared her throat.
"Okay," she said, "was everyone paid today?"
"Handsomely," Haruna said. "Kiri, how much did we make?"
Kiri held up a sack, which he dumped on the table. It was filled with big coppers and silvers. "Lots," he said, cheerfully.
"Whoa," Ranma said. "Loads more than we made."
"They're stingy at the post office," Negi said, flushing as he dumped a meager assortment of coppers on the table.
"We got lucky," Asuna said, as Tokine emptied their earnings, totaling of at least two dozen silvers. "We delivered to a nobleman today, and because Konoka set the table up for him, he tipped us extra. He's the only Gurlik we've met so far who's talked to us more than a few minutes!"
Konoka smiled serenely, as others grinned at her and said their commendations.
"A steady earning for us," Katara said. They had made the same amount every day for the past few weeks. Five silvers.
"It's all cause Katara takes her shirt off when we work," Sokka said, lazily.
Katara flushed. "No it isn't! Besides, I get hot!"
Naruto, Aang and Yoshimori nodded at that, but it went largely unnoticed, to their thanks.
"How much did you make?" Naruto asked, looking across the table at Raiden.
The man responded by clapping a small sack of coppers on the table.
"And you?" Asuna grunted, looking at Saito.
The man snorted. "I have nothing."
"You never have anything! Why don't you make any money? We feed you!" Asuna snapped.
"That's your problem, now isn't it?" Saito said, raising an eyebrow. "I merely come, and I am fed. I ask for nothing, yet you freely give it."
"Are you a dog? It's implied!"
"I am not called the Wolf of Mibu for nothing."
Asuna looked like she might pop a blood vessel, so Yue cleared her throat and said, "It doesn't matter, Asuna. We have other things to talk about." She said it quieter than she would've liked, because Saito was looking at her again.
"Like that I think we should leave soon."
Asuna immediately quieted. "Eh?"
"Already, Yue-san?" Negi said, frowning at her.
"We've been discussing it," Yue said. "We have enough money for the journey, I should think. Chisame, Nodoka and I scouted out supplies today, and found that with today and tomorrow's earnings, we should have enough to purchase everything that we need to hold us over for at least the next two towns. It's my belief that we should start our journey."
"We have loads of time," Yoshimori said, frowning.
"We don't know that," Yue said. "We're assuming they're in the same position as us."
"Who's to say they aren't?" Tokine asked.
"Only the typical villain scenario," muttered Chisame, to herself.
Yue did not hear that and continued on, saying, "Nobody, but I think that it's better we keep moving, lest our assumptions prove incorrect. If we're on the move, we have less of a chance of being ambushed, and that isn't something we want. If we're caught by surprise, it'll be very bad for everyone."
"We won't be taken by surprise," Naruto said, his childish confidence making a few smile but still more others frown.
"I like your certainty, Naruto-kun, but I'm not feeling it. I think we should be more cautious than we currently are." Yue looked around. "For the most part, I get the feeling we're treating all of this as some game or vacation."
"We don't work on vacations," Haruna said, smirking.
Yue's eye twitched. "Yes, but we're still not taking this seriously. We don't have enough information and we're not taking the initiative. The longer we stay not only the harder is it going to be for us to leave, but—"
"So why don't we just stay? Let them come to us?" Akane asked.
"Because we have another objective, and it's halfway across the world," Yue said.
Tifa looked at Raiden and Saito, as the others argued. Neither of the men were speaking, but both of them were watching the conversation, their food already gone. Saito with apparent indifference; Raiden intensely, almost unblinking. He caught her eye, however, and looked briefly at her. She smiled knowingly, and he turned quickly away, his mask returning as he did. Tifa turned to the rest, and spoke: "Yue is right. It is better to exercise caution over bravado, and I suppose we all have done enough here as it is. It would be best if we got our affairs in order tomorrow, and purchase the supplies to leave on the following day."
Everyone turned to face her. Up until now, none of the adults had spoken, or had taken much of an interest in the nightly meetings. When one did speak, everyone listened—not because of the authority but because of how unlikely it was when one of them said anything.
"Raiden-san agrees." Tifa cast a look at him, smiling playfully.
Raiden gave a slow nod, casting a quick, almost annoyed, glance at Tifa. "It is better to cut our ties now and get going. But we do not have to move quickly, only carefully."
"I don't know about you," Saito said, lazily, "but I would move quickly as well. There is no place for us here." Everyone knew what he meant when he said, 'here'.
From there, the arguments dwindled into a range of agreements, from grudging to excited.
"Okay," Yu said, after awhile, when dinner had passed and everyone was anxious to get to their beds. "We haven't yet considered what I mentioned back in the forest."
They had avoided it for a reason, Yue was sure. Nobody had brought it up, and she had abstained from doing the same out of courtesy. She looked at everyone's faces, seeing their eyes shift from exhaustion to a tired gloom. Nobody spoke up, so she slowly continued.
"Personally, I would think it a good idea, but not now, at least. I should think we should wait for a moment, and make our way along a little, and break up at a more viable and strategic juncture. A place that will allow many paths easily, and allow us also to rejoin after a while." She clutched the rolled up map she had set before her, some time ago. "I've chosen it, but I want everyone's opinions before I do anything else."
"I don't think we should," Naruto said, his words blunt.
"Nor I," said Tifa, softly. "A big target we may be, but we are more powerful together."
"I think it has its strong points," Tokine said. "We shouldn't write it off so quickly."
"It's been on everyone's minds for a while," Setsuna said.
"It hasn't been on mine," Yoshimori said.
"Or mine," Aang said. "I also don't like it."
Yue looked at everyone who had not yet spoken, and who didn't seem ready to. She sighed. "Then let's just forget it for now. We have a long way yet to go. It's only the beginning, isn't it?"
"To be sure." Raiden's words, however soft, were surprising to hear when he hadn't been prompted.
"Then let's get some rest. Tomorrow's the last day."
Words linger, and none were so tenacious as those as everyone went to bed that night.
To many, it felt like their last day of peace.
Raiden saw them before they did him. He frowned, stepping closer to the edge of the wall as he watched them weave their way through the crowds. They seemed determined, set on a mission that might be a matter of life or death, or at least it seemed that from the way they frantically circled around the dozens of alleyways and souks that populated this end of town. Occasionally they would stop, and curse at each other before moving on to another place, talking loudly and unsuccessfully to shopkeepers who were eager to sell their wares to anybody who noticed them.
The Gurliks were not at all different in that respect. Despite how polite—or secretive— they seemed, they were just as eager when it came to making money as humans were. But they were better at it, it seemed, and what might've been taken as false generosity in a human seemed almost genuine when a Gurlik was convincing you how wonderful his wares were.
The blonde one was always suckered in. He was too trusting. Too naïve. The black-haired one with the freckles and stubbed nose seemed more world-wise but just as trusting.
Raiden wondered if he'd ever been like that. He supposed he had. With her at least. He frowned as the boys made yet another circuit in the same direction. They must be lost, despite their determined quest.
He wondered if he should help. He felt obligated to. Regardless of whether he wanted to or not, they were a part of a team with him, and it seemed that they would be for some time. They were children, but he had been one as well. Jack the Ripper. They weren't like that, though. They were too innocent, too trusting, they wouldn't survive this without guidance.
Some part of him wondered why he cared. Snake wouldn't have looked twice at those children. He'd have acted like the man Saito did. Gruff and cold, that was how they'd learn—whether he took an active role or not. Perhaps they'd learn quicker that way. Learn quicker not to be so stupid and so trusting.
He had to be like that. He wasn't Jack any more, was he? Jack had died. He had killed Jack. Jack the Ripper. That monster hadn't deserved to continue living. A monster that killed everything.
He didn't draw immediately away, and that was his mistake. It took once chance glance before the blonde one recognized him.
Shit, he thought.
"OI!" Naruto bellowed, so loud that it was amazing that a child so small had such a voice, "RAIDEN!"
At his voice, Raiden did draw back. But both boys were rushing through the crowd towards him, before he could get away. As naïve as he looked, the boy had some skill, it was apparent. He was nothing like a ninja, but he moved just as swiftly and easily as one. It took but one bound for him to reach the top of the wall. His friend, the black-haired kekkaishi, followed just as easily.
They defy gravity like it was a tickling summer wind, Raiden thought. There were so few people in his world that could manage something so graceful and yet children did it without thinking.
"Yo!" the blonde's smile was wide, borderline infectious. It was hard not to smile back, but Raiden managed.
"How's guard duty going?" Yoshimori asked, lazily.
Raiden fought against speaking, but he lost. "Well."
"Say," Naruto said. "You wouldn't happen to know where the painting stuff is? Megane-chan sent us to go get some?"
"It's what Naruto calls Haruna-san," Yoshimori said. "It fits, though."
He's a ninja and a boy, thought Raiden, a little appalled. The boy already dishonored his title with a brash and outspoken personality. "I don't know."
"Come on, you've been around different spots all week, right? You must know at least somewhere." Naruto leaned towards the man, squinting up at him. His eyes were big and blue, and intense for such a small boy.
Raiden had seen the girl go in a general direction once every few days. He hadn't seen where she'd ended up, however.
"I can give you a direction," he said, slowly. "But that's it."
"That's all we need," Naruto said. "I can get us there, easy."
"You already said that," Yoshimori muttered, shrugging. "But anything'll help. Thanks."
Raiden pointed. The boys followed his finger, into the throngs of tall, thin Gurliks and their narrow souks which led off into darkness.
"Any more specific?"
"I told you, a direction," Raiden said, coldly.
"Fine, fine," Naruto said, sighing. Then he grinned. "Thanks, though!"
"Yeah, thanks," Yoshimori said. "Good luck on your last day!"
Raiden nodded, watching as the boys once again defied physics by leaping from the fifteen foot wall and landing lightly in the crowd. They took off in the direction he had indicated, and Raiden kept watching as a warm wind blew by, ruffling his standard-issue robes and flicking the tassel on his halberd. A faint smell reached his nose, dusty and pungent. He turned his head ever so slightly and saw it before it struck.
The lance of hard stone splintered the solid marble wall behind Raiden, passing through but air as he flowed around it, abandoning his cloak and the burden of his halberd. His sword was free a moment later as the hail of sharp stalactites continued towards him.
He bobbed and weaved like water, and his sword flowed with him like forged lightning. He cut down the spears as they came, his laser-sharpened blade cutting them like butter, and when the assault ended Raiden looked neither wounded nor any less harried than when he had stood upon the wall in silent guard.
But the wall and the marketplace it overlooked were not so skilled. They lay in ruins—six great black pillars and come from nowhere, striking the ground and crushing everything and everyone in the immediate area, sending the rest fleeing in terror. In the panic and the noise Raiden could barely hear his words, as he approached from behind. They were soft like the wind but solid too, gentle but empowered.
"I would expect no less," the boy said.
Raiden turned. He was not much to look at. Proper and prim in a violet Japanese schoolboy's outfit, but barely up to Raiden's stomach. Silvery-white hair, a gaze like ancient amber, and a peaceful expression.
"Oh?" Raiden said.
"I have heard tell of you," he said, simply, smiling.
"I've heard nothing of you."
The boy nodded crisply. "Yes, of course. That would be the point, wouldn't it?"
So that was it, then? "You came quickly."
"You were all quite slow," the boy said. "So we decided to get the drop on you."
"You have," Raiden said. He fell into a stance, raising his blade over his head, edge-out. "But this makes things a whole lot simpler."
The boy smiled faintly, a wisp-like thing that didn't last as long as a blink. "Yes, perhaps. Let's see if you're correct, then, shall we, Raiden-san?"
"Yes," Raiden said. He struck.
The day was too hot, and most farmers had stopped work for the day. The ones Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph had been working for sent them with reluctant smiles back to the city with a pleasantly plump sack of coins to finish off their tenure. Aang was a little disappointed to leave them, even if the backbreaking work was bothersome, especially when Toph shouted at him. He felt a little foolish when a girl about his age acted like she was his superior, even if it were true in certain areas. But that morning had been a little worse than normal, with all his distractions.
"You're too scatterbrained sometimes, airhead," Toph had snapped at him.
"Sorry," he muttered, as he often did. "I'm just getting a feeling."
"What kind of feeling?" Katara was always concerned about what strange feelings he got, and always kind enough to listen. He liked that, even if it did make him feel a little odd at times.
"I can't describe it," he said, with a shrug. "Just a weird feeling. Prickles."
"It's probably nerves," said Katara. "We're about to go on a pretty wild journey, you know?"
"It might be fleas," said Sokka, scratching his arm. "Our room's full of them."
"Unlike you, Sokka, Aang bathes regularly."
"Not everyone's as fancy as him, though," Sokka muttered.
"I don't think it's anything like that," Aang said. "But it's probably nothing." He must've taken Yue's caution too much to heart, there's no way there'd be any danger this early. They had half a world to cross. No way they'd be here.
"Then let's get back," Sokka said. "I'd like to see what Yue and that bought for our supplies."
"So you can double and triple check them?" Toph asked.
Aang grinned, and didn't tell them that the feeling slowly got more prominent, more there, rather than not there, as they neared the city, entering it through one of the many smaller trade gates that, according to Yue, would be sealed up instantly in the threat of an invasion. They were still guarded, too—he had really nothing to worry about.
But it was as if his ancestors were shouting at him. The wind seemed to whisper his folly, right up until he felt it, rather than saw it: a shift in the wind; the slight sound of a blade being freed from a hard leather sheath.
"Sokka, MOVE!" Aang suddenly screamed, thrusting a balled-up wad of air into the boy's back, ejecting him six feet forwards just as the man landed, silent as a feather.
The man was liquid, though, and he did not stop moving, coming straight for Aang not a second later, dancing and whirling like a gust of leaves. Summoning another ball of air, Aang blew himself back this time, and stopped the man's blade cold. Katara swooped in as well, her body reacting before her mind, guiding a whip-like tendril of cool water from the skin hanging at her side.
But the man was too fast, sliding away even as Aang's attack rebuffed him, away from Katara's attack, moving towards Toph, almost dancing in his movement, the long, single-edged knife he held whirling along with him and his long, black tresses.
Toph could only barely feel him, only barely hear the ringing of the blade through the air, he was so light, light as air, light as Aang, that she couldn't pin him. Where the hell was he, what could she—
She struck out blindly, thrusting up a wall of rock before her. The man spun away from it, and then scaled it with a single leap, but Toph ejected herself out of the way, feeling the movement in the air from his fall. When he landed so did she, panting, but the man hardly seemed winded, and even when he struck the ground, he did not stop moving.
"Get back!" Katara roared, though whether it was to their attacker or her friends, none could say. She moved in, and then away as the man attacked her. She struck out with the tendril again, adding the moisture in the air to it, making it grow longer, stronger.
But the man was like water, too. He moved and flowed, his black coat flapping and moving like the silent wings of a crow, and his blade would've killed her if Aang had not used another blast of air to knock her out of the way. Instead, she got a clean slice on the shoulder, which made her cry out.
"Oi!" Toph bellowed. "Take this, Featherhead!"
She stomped the ground. Beneath the man a column of rock and stone exploded upwards. Any normal man would've been flung away, or impaled upon it. But this man stepped on it, and rode it up until it stopped, ten or so feet above them.
He had a black beard around his mouth and red eyes, as red as his lips, accentuated by the paleness of his skin, which also served to bring out the hideous scars that dotted his face, most prominent being a large, circular one atop his head, pulsing with angry veins that looked sickly green. He wore a black coat with a high collar, but nothing underneath, his bare chest—riddled with scars, was visible.
"Well," he said, softly. His voice was strange, soft, cold. "I find it unpleasant that I must be killing children, but I confess, it does not truly bother me. I wonder—could one of you provide me with a bit of fun?"
He grinned, showing fangs.
"Saito-san, please, it isn't too much to ask, is it?"
The man ignored Yue, and continued down the stairs in his confident stroll, a cigarette at the ready to light once he got outside.
Yue stopped at the top of the stairs, frowning down at the man, wondering if she should give chase. She glanced at Nodoka, and the girl gave her an encouraging nod. Thanks, she thought. Why don't you do it, Nodoka?
"It won't take long," she called out after him.
"Is that a fact?" the man stopped briefly, but didn't turn in her direction. "It doesn't matter. I have other things to do."
"Like what?" She felt almost horrified for speaking it, but she couldn't help it. Despite her fear of the man, she and Nodoka alone wouldn't be able to carry the supplies back to the inn, once they had collected it all, and she had no idea how much money it would be to hire someone to carry it for them.
Saito continued to ignore her, walking towards the door. With another look at Nodoka, and then a heavy sigh, Yue followed. Nodoka trailed after her, fidgeting nervously.
"I realize that you're not up to helping us, but it really is in your best interests—"
"So far, I see nothing in my best interests in this arrangement," Saito said.
"It'll be helpful, and you'll get your share."
"It seems to me I would get my share whether I helped or not. I have so far."
She puffed up, a bit angry now. "You won't get your share if you don't help."
He stopped, just before the door. He turned lazily to her. "Oh? So it's like that, is it? Good, I was getting tired of your annoying and clearly forced altruism."
She deflated a bit, but couldn't see anything in his eyes to say that he had accepted. "So you'll help?"
"No. I have my own supplies all ready." He turned, and went out the door.
Yue gawked after him. She had never met somebody so…so…unfriendly! She had better words for it, but Yue had never liked swearing. She grit her teeth, gave Nodoka a withering glare, and went after him again. He had turned towards the street just as she came out, his cigarette already lit and puffing.
"Saito-san, I should think—" She stopped, because he had stopped too, and she had seen what he'd seen.
The man stood right in front of him, arrogant and sneering. He did not attack, no—he simply stood there, with a mocking smile, shirtless. His chest was hard, toned muscle, and he had a little goatee beneath his wide smile and his cunning eyes.
"Yo," he said, laughing. "You look like a fun guy to poison, don't you think?"
Saito stared at him, and snorted. "You are quick. I was led to believe we'd have at least a few more weeks before we had to contend with your kind."
"Sorry," the man said, laughing. "But that ain't the drill. I got orders, and it looks like you're the target of them. Heh, you and those brats behind you."
Saito didn't even look at Nodoka and Yue standing in the doorway of the inn, looking wide-eyed at the man before them. Yue glanced from the man to Saito, confusion melting into realization, and then to horror.
"So," the man said, "shall we get started? I like strong guys to fight, and you look like a really strong one. It'll make up for how weak-looking those little twits behind you are."
"Hmph." Saito lifted his katana, and drew it slowly from its sheath. It gleamed in the afternoon light, bright and deadly, but it made the man laugh all the harder.
"That's a big blade you got there," the man said, snickering. "Big enough, yeah, but you'd have to shove that thing all the way into somebody to kill them. I got something better, and I don't need to lug it around like you do." The man brandished a dagger, shimmering red and silver.
"Saito-san," Nodoka said, quietly. "Should we…?"
Saito said nothing. He was staring at the knife, his wolf-like eyes barely moving. "Poison?"
"How'd you guess?"
"You told me in your introduction, fool."
The man blinked, and the growled. "Yeah, so I did. I'll tell you again, as well. I'm Abro. The Poison Killer. Who are you?"
"It makes no difference," Saito said, calmly.
"You won't need to remember."
The man bristled. "Think you can take me? I once killed two-hundred people, all in one night."
Saito seemed made of stone; and then in one liquid movement, he was ready. His blade was held pointing forwards above his head, his knees bent, one leg set powerfully in front. He barely looked to have even moved. Nodoka and Yue jumped, and when it happened, neither of them had even known it until the blood was flying, and Abro was screaming.
"Do we know these guys?" Haruna asked, gulping as she stared around her at the things around her.
"W-What are they?" Elle gasped. The little alleyway was silent and still, and there were only two of them but they had come out of nowhere, and they just stood there, watching them with sightless eyes.
One of them maid a chirruping noise, and on arms and legs that jittered more than moved, it hopped towards them. One foot at a time, the other followed, both moving in unison now. Chittering all the way.
"They look terribly familiar," Haruna gulped, "but I don't know from where."
"I wouldn't expect so," said the man above her, giggling. "They won't be alive much longer, I don't doubt. This place is too cold for them, heeehee!" He was smiling, the face-paint distorting his features so that his smile seemed too wide, his lips like smudges of blood on his face.
"But," he sang, shaking his head, as he perched on the edge of the shop's tarpaulin. "Neither will you be, no doubt! Life is so precious, but it's never as meaningless as when it ends young." His golden hair fluttered as he bobbed his head, imitating the hopping motion of the cactus-creatures, his white robe trimmed with blood-red and green, with ruffles around his neck, pointed pink boots and a white cape trimmed in gold the style of his ornamented hair making him look like a jester with fine tastes.
He laughed again, a high-pitched, but impossibly cold snicker that echoed long in their ears, even after he had stopped.
"But hurry, kids! I can see one's about ready, can't you?"
One of the creatures had stopped. It was now hopping up and down, his perpetually bent arms moving up and down at the elbow, its chirruping growing louder. The spines that dotted its body began to quiver.
The other one had stopped now too.
"Too bad!" the man giggled. "You're dead! Bye-bye!"
Before I say anything else, some people will have no doubt found out that Double Arts was cancelled, having its last chapter last week. Due to low ratings. How they could cancel it is beyond me, since it looked to be more clever than half of the shit they're running at the moment, but whatever. Not much I can do, is there?
Well, aside from continuing their story in mine. I feel both angry and liberated by this news. I can now create the villains for myself, with backstory and everything. So, from now on, you'll find that any of the characters featured in Double Arts will be my own creations, save for Kiri, Elle, Abro and Lucchi Zezu.
I hate it when things happen like that. But whatever.
Hope you enjoyed the chapter! Another one may be on its way soon.
If you can guess who the villains are, props for you. I'll give you a hint on one of them…he's not supposed to be there!